Sunday, 28 February 2016

the joy of repentance

In case you haven’t noticed, repentance is a massive theme in the season of Lent. It can have a pretty negative reputation. We might imagine people with bad self-image, or monks whipping themselves. Repentance isn’t popular is our culture where we are constantly trying to build up our self-esteem. There is a whole industry based on “self-help” that is full of advice to make you feel better about yourself. … And now in Lent in the church we focus on repentance. We think about the ways we miss the mark. We think about the changes we should make to our lives. It all feels very negative. This is intensified by the fact that Jesus opened his ministry by calling people to repentance and that many saints throughout the centuries have defined the life of a Christian as a life of continuous repentance. That is pretty at odds with our culture.

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again, that repentance isn’t just turning away from something bad, it is also turning towards something good. In general, repentance is a continuous turning towards God. Yes, that also entails that we will be turning away from something (“idols”, selfishness) in order to turn towards God. But repentance should be primarily positive because it is primarily turning towards God.

We are mostly looking at Jesus’ words in Luke today, but I’d like us to start by looking briefly at the other readings for today. Isaiah speaks about the hunger of our souls. (The Psalm today mentions this hunger too.) Our soul’s hunger will only be satisfied as it is rooted deeply in God’s love. We get in trouble when we think that something else can satisfy our soul’s hunger. The Seven Deadly Sins could be understood as the attempt to feed our soul’s hunger with something that is not God. When we try to feed the soul with something that is not God it might seem to work for a moment, but ultimately it doesn’t satisfy. We will try to make it work, and so we think maybe I just need a bit more and so we try again to satisfy that hunger with something that is not God and it seems to work for a moment again, but it really leads to a kind of addiction. Gluttony tends to work that way, as does lust, as does greed, etc. God doesn’t necessarily desire our repentance so that we will merely be obedient. He desires our repentance to that we will be free from all that would enslave and destroy us.

Turning to St. Paul in the letter to the Corinthians, he is speaking about the ancient Hebrews who left slavery in Egypt and wandered through the wilderness. He again is talking about spiritual food and drink. He might be relating the manna and water from the rock to the bread and wine of communion here- it is spiritual food and drink. He then speaks about the Hebrews as being examples for us. They received God’s leading and instruction. They were considered God’s people. They received God’s food and drink. They were sustained by him…. And yet, God was not pleased. The people continued to grumble, be disobedient, rebellious, and unthankful. For that reason many of them never made it out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Our tendency can be to look down on them as if we are better than them. As if, if we were there we wouldn’t be disobedient, and wouldn’t grumble, or be unthankful. Paul is telling us to be careful- “if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall” (1 Cor 10:12). He is wanting us to learn from them so we don’t fall into the same sins and endure the same consequences.

Now we turn to Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus is making a very similar point. Someone starts speaking about something brutal the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, did. Even if we didn’t have the Bible we would know he was a cruel and oppressive leader from other writings. The event described here might have been an attack by Pilate on some Galilean pilgrims. Galileans were known as being trouble makers. It sounds like while some of these pilgrims were offering a sacrifice in the temple Pilate killed them. If this was during Passover the pilgrims would kill their own sacrifice. And if Pilate killed them on Passover then their blood would mix with the blood of their sacrificed animal.

It was a common belief in Jesus’ day that if something particularly awful happened to someone it was because they were particularly sinful. You still see this in cultures that believe in karma. If something bad happens to someone then they are in a sense getting what they deserve. If they are children then it must be because of something they did in a past life. …There is an element of truth in the idea of karma. It is a Biblical principal that you will reap what you sow (e.g. Gal 6:7). The seeds you plant will indicate the kind of plant that will grow. So there are consequences to our actions. If we don’t deal with our anger, or gossip, or alcoholism, then we will probably deal with certain consequences. However, this is a general principal and can’t be applied in every case. The whole book of Job expresses this point- what happened to him was not because of sin in his life. We see this in Jesus’ life- it was not his sin that resulted in him dying on the cross. Terrible tragedy doesn’t necessarily mean someone was being punished for a terrible sin. But, that was often the point of view in Jesus’ day.

At this point Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem with a number of Galilean pilgrims. Earlier in Luke the Pharisees warned Jesus that King Herod wants to kill him. And now they are talking about these Galileans that were killed in the Temple doing exactly what they were going to be doing there. Jesus says, don’t feel like you’re safe as if they were worse sinners than you and so deserved it. He’s saying that could have been you.

He also refers to another tragedy that killed 18 people when a tower fell in Jerusalem. He makes the same point. They weren’t necessarily any worse than anyone else because this tragedy happened to them.

On one level Jesus might be making a very practical and historical point here. If they are going to rebel against Rome in a violent uprising, their fate will be like those who had their blood spilled and who were crushed by falling buildings. In fact, there was a violent uprising against Rome and Jerusalem was destroyed along with the temple in 70AD. It was a terrible massacre. Jesus may be saying if you repent and adopt his ways of peace that you might avoid this coming destruction. Unless you repent, the same will happen to you.

So Jesus’ words might have a very real historical warming for his listeners, but there is also a deeper spiritual principal here that goes beyond the specific historical situation they were facing in Roman occupied Israel.

We are continuously warned about being unfruitful in the Bible. Jesus’ parable is another warning about being unfruitful. We aren’t sure if we should see Jesus as the vineyard owner or the gardener, but the overall lesson is really the same. The owner of the vineyard comes to check on his fig tree. The mature tree is supposed to produce figs each year, but it hasn’t produced figs for 3 years. The idea seems to be that the tree is living a selfish existence. It is using up the nutrients and water of the soil and not giving anything back. The owner wants to cut the tree down, but the gardener asks for one more year to give it one last chance. He will break up the soil around the roots and fertilize the tree, but if it still doesn’t produce figs then they plan to cut it down.

It is a parable about God’s patience with us. He is giving us chance after chance to amend our lives. I wonder if we sometimes presume too much on God’s mercy and forgiveness and use that as a reason not to take our sin seriously. Just because God is patient with us, doesn’t mean God doesn’t take sin seriously, or that there aren’t serious consequences to our sin. God’s patience is the difference between us and the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness who received the consequences of their sins. God’s patience won’t last forever. At some point we will run out of time. We should not delay. Right now is the time to repent and produce fruit.

Paul’s point about our spiritual ancestors wandering in the wilderness is that we could have been them and could have received the same consequences. They likely made the same excuses we make. They looked to their neighbour for determining if they were doing okay or not, rather than to God’s instructions. We should be careful about looking down on them. Instead we should learn from their mistakes.

The question we are left with from Jesus’ parable is, “are we producing fruit for the kingdom of God?” How do our life and words show the goodness and beauty of God? How does our faith have an effect on the people around us? We should maybe look at this not just as individuals, but as a community. How does this speak to us as a church- as St. Mary’s and St. Timothy’s? Are we producing fruit for the kingdom by our life as a church- by our words and actions as a church? If we were the only Church someone ever walked into what would they think of Christianity and Christians?

This can be an awkward lesson to teach. Some of us have hearts that are pretty hard and we need a hard teaching to crack our hearts open. On the other hand, some of us are so tender that we feel crushed by any reference to our sin because we are so aware of our own sinfulness.

For those that tend to feel crushed I read something that might be helpful. It’s by a man called Matthew the Poor- 

“God desired to endow repentance with double the honour, happiness, pleasure, and joy so a sinner would not be despondent or bashful at coming to the bosom of Christ [Lk 15:8-10; Lk 15:4-7]… Although a repenting sinner could hardly be noticed by the world, the Bible says that the whole heaven welcomes a sinner’s repentance and rejoices… The sinner who feels within himself a total deprivation of all that is holy, pure, and solemn because of sin, the sinner who is in his own eyes in utter darkness, severed from hope of salvation, from the light of life, and from the communion of saints, is himself the friend whom Jesus invited to dinner, the one who was asked to come out from behind the hedges, the one asked to be a partner in His wedding and an heir to God. God has promised not to remember any of his sins but to drop them into oblivion as a summer cloud is swallowed up by the glare of the sun. … Is it not for him that He has crucified himself and has borne misery and dereliction? … without the sinner we are able neither to comprehend the love of Christ, nor to measure its depth, nor can it show itself in an action… Divine love appears as most dignified in our sight when we come to know it in its condescension to us while we are fallen into a state of misery. For the sake of the sinner the mysteries of God’s love have been unveiled and the richness of Christ has been opened to us… it is solely the extreme destitution of the sinner that draws out the richness of Christ… Christ never enriches the one who is rich, nor does He feed the one who is satisfied, or justify the one who is righteous, or redeem the one who relies on his own power, or teach a scholar! His richness is only for the poor and needy, to those who are cast away, the contemptable and in their own eyes wretched; His food is for the hungry, His righteousness for sinners… in [the sorrowful sinner] He finds a field for compassion, mercy, and tenderness, … If only the sinner knew that all his trespasses, transgressions and infirmities were but the point of God’s compassion, pardon, and forgiveness, and that however great and atrocious they might be, they could never repel God’s heart, extinguish His mercy, or fetter His love even for a single moment. If only the sinner knew this, he would never cling to his sin or seek isolation from God … who is trying to show love toward him and who is calling them!” (The Communion of Love, p91-95).

We should not be afraid to repent. God has paved the way and has shown he will joyfully receive us no matter what. Repentance is a good thing- it is to turn to God and turn away from what will enslave and destroy us. God wants our repentance because he loves us. Like a parent who wants their child to stay off the street. So we should turn away from what will not satisfy our souls and turn towards God’s love which is really the only thing that can ultimately satisfy us.

Monday, 22 February 2016

confidence in the midst of difficulty- Ps 27

I’d like us to look at the Psalm this morning. It is a psalm of confidence in God. It is about faith in the midst of difficulty. In the Eastern Orthodox Church this psalm is often sung for baptisms. The idea is that when Jesus was baptized he was immediately brought into the wilderness to be tempted. Being baptized was being made ready for the battle that lies ahead. We like to be a bit more chipper with our baptisms, but I wonder if the Orthodox view isn’t a bit more realistic. Yes, God is with us, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse us from hardship.

The psalm begins, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (27:1). The Psalmist is asking a rhetorical question. If God is his protector and guide, then what possible reason would he have to be afraid?

That might seem a bit overly idealistic (maybe even a bit na├»ve) for those of us who have had to deal with difficulties in our lives. But, we need to look at the rest of the psalm to get a sense of what’s being said. The very next line (v 2) talks about evildoers trying to devour his flesh. So the Psalmist can’t mean that he will never encounter trouble because God is with him. All through the psalm he is taking about adversaries, foes, armies, war, the day of trouble, the rejection of parents, enemies, and false witnesses rising against him in court who intend to do him violence. The Psalmist is very aware of how messy the world is.

The Psalmist is not saying there is no danger, but he is declaring that he has no need to fear. He says, “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear” (27:3). In our Gospel lesson the Pharisees say to Jesus, “Get away from here, for [King] Herod wants to kill you” (Lk 13:31). Jesus’ response isn’t fear. Instead he replies to the powerful king who wants to kill him, “Go and tell that fox for me…” (Lk 13:32). That is not the response of someone who is afraid. Jesus even makes reference to being killed as other prophets were. The thought of his death doesn’t seem to bring fear to him. As Christians we see Jesus described in Isaiah 53: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is 53:3-4). Jesus cut the path of salvation, not around difficulty, but through difficulty. We are sometimes tempted to think God is absent when we face difficulty in our lives, but the biblical point of view is that the cross is when and where God was acting most powerfully among human beings. God was working most powerfully in the midst of difficulty. So whatever the Psalmist, and the Bible in general, means by not having to be afraid. It doesn’t mean never encountering trouble.

There is no promise that we will be saved from difficulty. In fact, it seems to be the opposite. Jesus tells us, as his disciples, to take up our cross and follow him (Matt 16:24-26). He says, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (Jn 15:18). We are actually told we will encounter difficulty. So not being afraid isn’t necessarily about being protected from difficulty.

One of the early church fathers, Cassiodorus (5th and 6th C.), was commenting on this psalm and said, “fear of the Lord ensured that he could fear no other”. Fear of the Lord is recognition of God’s power and that your ultimate end rests in His judgement. Fear of the Lord means recognizing that He is your Creator and that He has a right to give you directions about how to live and is justified in His expectations that you will live accordingly. Fear of the Lord means that you rest your life in His hands and recognize that He is the ultimate authority in all matters. There is no greater power than God, and fearing God means living like it. The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann once said, “We live as if he never came. This is the only real sin, the sin of all sins, the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity” (Great Lent). We live as if something besides God has more authority and more power in our lives. Paul says something similar in our reading from Philippians today, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ… their god is the belly” (Phil 3:17-18, 19). Fearing God means recognizing God’s rightful place in our lives.

If God is the ultimate power and authority in the universe, then if we are aligned with God we have no ultimate reason to fear. If God has his hand on us, nothing can remove it except God. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he says, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39). He’s trying to think of anything that could separate us from God, and there is nothing. If God has his hand on us, nothing can take it away. This is the psalmist’s greatest desire- “One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple” (27:4). He wants to seek his face (27:8). He desires a close relationship with God. He wants to be hidden away where God is (27:5). He wants to be a member of God’s own household.

Actually, the Psalmist’s fear seems to mostly be around separation from God- “Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!” (27:9).

Even in death he will not let go of us. It has fallen out of fashion to talk about life after death in some circles in the church. The worry is that if we focus too much on life after death we won’t think about this life here and now. I get that, but I also think that having a strong understanding that death is not our end allows us to have courage we might not otherwise have, and to be generous beyond what makes sense to the rest of the world because this life isn’t the end of us. We can live simply knowing that abundance beyond our wildest dreams is still to come. We can take risks to make this world a better place- standing up to tyrants and corruption- because we know that death is not the end of us.

Earlier in Paul’s letter to the Romans he says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18). Whatever difficulty we deal with here and now, the future God has in store for us will outshine it by a long shot. The future God has in mind for us is for us to be eternally connected to the Source of all beauty, joy, and love, and intimately connected to a community of people marked by healthy and healed relationships. It is a life where it is impossible to get bored and where we are continuously maturing and growing into the likeness of Jesus. You might remember the line from Amazing Grace, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun”. That’s not describing an eternal church service, I think it’s describing that sense of awe we have when we are overwhelmed by beauty, joy, and love, and when we are living in that state perpetually we radiate thanksgiving to God. It is a life so amazing that any description is dull by comparison, and our imagination can’t even come close to grasping it.

Living a life free from fear means recognizing that God has His hand on us and nothing can remove it; and that He is planning an amazing eternal future for us. Whatever we endure here is temporary, no matter how painful. … Which is easy to say when you’re not in the middle of a painful event. Imagine Mary watching her son dying on the cross. Nothing could comfort her in that moment. We could try to tell her that this is temporary and that something good will come out of this, but that would probably just offend her. … Looking back on that event now we can see the cross in a different light- but at that moment it looked like meaningless and unredeemable suffering. Now the cross has become a symbol of hope and victory.

There are three truths that can help us overcome fear if we can hold onto them. 1) God is all-powerful. 2) God is always present. And, 3) God is all-loving. First, God is all powerful. God is the Creator of the universe. We can’t even begin to imagine the power of a being like that. So of course if God holds onto us, no power can make Him let go. Second, God is always present. In Psalm 139 the psalmist imagines where he can go to get away from God- “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in the grave, you are there!” (Ps 139:7-8). Can we realistically imagine being able to hide from God? God is always with us. Third, God is all-loving. We might imagine God being powerful, and being present with us, but If God doesn’t love us, or if we aren’t in a loving relationship with God, then we have no reason to hope. In fact if God was negatively disposed towards us that could be really troublesome. Thankfully we are told that God is not just “loving”, but that God is love (1 John 4:8). God’s primary attitude towards us is love. He loves you more than you have ever been loved by anyone, and more that you can imagine being loved. If these three things are true (that he is powerful; he is with us; and he loves us) then we have no ultimate reason to be afraid.

St. Athanasius lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries. He lived while Christians were being persecuted. You might have heard about Christians being thrown to the lions to be devoured for the amusement of bloodthirsty crowds. This is when Athanasius lived. He says that Jesus has defeated death so Christians no longer had to be afraid of death, " is the very Saviour that also appeared in the body, who has brought death to nought, and Who displays the signs of victory over him day by day in his own disciples. For ... one sees men, weak by nature, leaping forward to death, and not fearing its corruption nor frightened of the descent into Hades, but eager with soul challenging it; and not flinching from torture, but on the contrary, for Christ's sake electing to rush upon death ... [Christ] supplies and gives to each the victory over death ... For who that sees a lion, ... made sport of by children, fails to see that [death] is either dead or has lost all his power” (On the Incarnation, xxix.3-5)… "For man is by nature afraid of death and of the dissolution of the body; but there is this most startling fact, that he who has put on the faith of the Cross despises even what is naturally fearful, and for Christ's sake is not afraid of death" (xxviii.2). The martyrs are examples to us that we don’t have to be afraid even when our very lives are threatened. This will not be the end for us. We don’t have to be afraid because God is holding onto us and nothing can take away the eternal future God wants for us.

Another reason we can have confidence in the midst of trouble is that if we are truly dedicating ourselves to God and living the way he wants, then whatever trouble comes against us is actually coming against God. The Psalmist asks God, “Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path…” (27:11). He wants to live in line with God’s will. Part of the Blessing for Abraham was this, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Gen 12:3). This means that God would so entwine his life with Abraham that whoever opposes Abraham would find themselves fighting against God.

When the Apostles were arrested in the book of Acts for proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead they were brought before the council to be questioned. A member of the council, he wise Gamaliel said, “keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:38-39). If we allow our lives to reflect God’s will for us, then we will have the same kind of status as God’s people. Those who attack us will find themselves not attacking us, but attacking God. They will be able to cause us some amount of trouble, yes. But, ultimately, like Jesus we will not be overcome by trouble. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).

We will not be saved from experiencing difficulty. That difficulty could even be transformed by God for our good (for example, to teach us patience). We will experience difficulty, but that doesn’t mean God is not with us. Whatever difficulty we experience is temporary. Because of the work of Christ nothing can remove God’s hand from us. Ultimately, we have no need to fear. When facing difficulty, instead of fear we take the Psalmist’s advice, “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” (27:14).

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Lent, Jesus, and the nature of temptation

Last Wednesday Lent began. Jesus begin his ministry with a call to repent- “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). Repentance means to change your mind, or to change direction. If you have your GPS guiding you and you make a wrong turn it will tell you how to correct your course. Your GPS will call you to repent. There were many reports about the dangers of smoking that came out and doctors began calling their patience to repent- to change their mind about being smokers. We repent by turning away from the bad, but we also repent by turning towards the good. I’ve spoken before about repenting towards the smell of popcorn when walking through the mall.

The Christian life has often been understood as a life of repentance. God gives us the gift of ‘new life’ but we often wander off the path and God calls us to repent and return to the path where we seek first the kingdom of God (Matt 6:33). There are so many other voices we have to contend with. We get messages from the radio, tv, movies, magazines, from friends, from strangers. We are constantly being bombarded with messages about who we are, how we should think about ourselves, who our enemies are, what we deserve, how busy we should be, etc. Most of those messages are in plain contradiction to the Kingdom way of life Jesus taught us. A 20 minute sermon once a week is pretty weak in comparison to that constant stream of messages about the “world’s” way of life. So no wonder we wonder off the Kingdom path and towards a life that has no ultimate meaning. The orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann once said, “We live as if he never came. This is the only real sin, the sin of all sins, the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity” (Great Lent). Lent is about looking at our lives and reminding ourselves that Jesus has come, and returning to a way of life that acts like it. We reevaluate our desires and ask the hard questions. Why do I want that? Will that really make me happy? Am I desiring the right things? We remind ourselves that where our heart is, there our treasure will be also (Matt 6:21).

In the old days people who were preparing to be baptized on Easter spent time in intense spiritual preparation. It was a time of prayer, fasting, study, generosity, service, and renunciation of sin as they prepared for their new life as Christians. Christians at some point realized that it was helpful to enter into a time to re-dedicate themselves to the new life they received as Christians. So they entered into an intense time of spiritual preparation for Easter as well.

In the liturgical life of the church we often imitate parts of the life of Jesus. Lent is a time when we remember Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry. So we also spend 40 days in a kind of wilderness in preparation for Easter.

I’d like us to look at Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. We see hints here of the Garden of Eden story from Genesis, but we also see hints of the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus was tempted, but he didn’t sin. Jesus shows us what real obedience to the Father looks like. This is a life that completely trusts God. I think we can learn something about temptation by looking at these temptations.

First, I want to make a little disclaimer. Jesus is unique and not everything he does we are supposed to imitate. For example, we can’t die on a cross for the sins of humanity. We aren’t necessarily to imitate every aspect of what Jesus did among us, however, as his disciples there is plenty we should learn from seeing him deal with the issues in front of him. We might not die for the sins of the world on a cross, but he does call us to take up our cross and follow him. Okay, disclaimer over.

If we look at the temptations we see that they aren’t actually bad things. Jesus is tempted to good things. We are not usually tempted to do something because it is bad. We are tempted because there is something good and beautiful and desirable about whatever we are being drawn to. In Genesis it says, “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen 3:6). Eve wasn’t tempted because it was bad. She was tempted because it is good. This is true in our own lives. We aren’t usually tempted between doing crack or going to Bible study. Even the temptation to do crack is about pleasure.

If you have ever read the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis you might remember the demon lamenting that they have not been able to create a pleasure of their own. The senior Demon says to the demon in training, “Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground [meaning God’s]. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.”

When we look at temptation we should remember that the devil doesn’t come to us with horns, covered in flames, goat legs, and a pitchfork. Paul tells us that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14). It will be beauty, goodness, and pleasure that will tempt us. The temptation comes in getting the thing in the wrong way.

In Jesus’ first temptation he hasn’t eaten for 40 days and “The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread’” (4:3). Now that seems pretty innocent. Food is good. But, Jesus wants to place God first in everything. He doesn’t want a hint of an idol in his life. For a hungry man, bread can become a god. Jesus replies with Scripture, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" He will not allow his bodily desires to be his god. Paul speaks about these people saying, “their god is their belly” (Phil 3:19). Jesus will not allow his hunger to get between him and God.

Next, “the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours’" (4:5-7). It is a very old teaching that human beings were supposed to be the lords of this world as beings created in the image of God. But, when human beings trusted the devil instead of God they placed themselves under his lordship. They basically made the devil the lord of the world, which is why the devil feels he can make such an offer.

Notice again though that Jesus is tempted by a good thing. God wants Jesus to be the Lord of the whole world, right? So, Jesus is being tempted by a good thing. What is wrong here is the way he would go about getting it. The devil is tempting Jesus to a way of thinking where the end justifies the means. “God wants you to be the Lord of the whole world, so we’ll skip this ugly cross business and get right to ruling the world.” All you have to do is worship the devil (who probably looks like an angel of light).

But, Jesus won’t have it. Again, he will not place his mission to become Lord of the world between him and God. God comes first. God’s ways come first. Jesus replies with Scripture again, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" (4:8) Jesus will become Lord as each human heart turns to him, as he wins them over with his sacrificial love. He will not become Lord as the devil hands the kingdoms over to him. The ends do not justify the means. Jesus is tempted by the good thing, but that’s not the way to get it.

Next the “devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone'" (4:9-11). Notice here that the devil is even quoting Scripture (Ps 91). Just because someone is quoting the Bible it doesn’t mean they are speaking God’s truth. This is why we have to be wise readers of Scripture.

Again, Jesus is being tempted by a good thing. The temple courtyards were full of people- including the temple leadership- the important priests and teachers of the law. If Jesus jumped off the top of the temple and angels appeared and carried him down safely to the ground who could argue against him being the Messiah? God wants people to see Jesus as the messiah, doesn’t he? If the leadership of the temple saw that, then he would win over the religious leadership. But again, that is to short-circuit the process God desires. Part of the sacrificial self-emptying love of Jesus is to go to those who are on the margins of society- the sick, the lepers, the sinners, the poor. People were going to believe Jesus was the messiah because “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt 11:4-5). Jesus is not recognized as the messiah because he impresses the leaders with a miraculous sign (Luke 23:8). Again Jesus replies with Scripture and places God first, rather than his goals, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'".

In all these temptations Jesus succeeds where Adam and Eve failed. Jesus succeeds where the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness for 40 years failed. Jesus as the representative of Israel and humanity has successfully resisted the temptations and kept his eye on his Father’s will above all else. No other human being has been able to do this.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “the only way one can prove love is by making a choice; mere words are not enough” (Life of Christ). Jesus chose God in every temptation. WE are invited to do the same as we journey through Lent. In every area of our life we look for anywhere we have said “yes” to something and by doing so, we dethroned God in our life. During Lent we examine our life and see what our choices say about our love for God. In any place where our choices declare anything but our love for God we are called to reconsider that part of our life and repent. To turn and make choices that declare our love for God. AMEN

Monday, 8 February 2016

Transfiguration- Jesus gets to define who he is

Before our Gospel reading we have an important question. At the beginning of Chapter 9 Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they answer, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” Then Jesus personalizes it. How about you- “who do you say that I am?” … Jesus doesn’t want an objective assessment of the crowds- a statistical assessment of public opinion- as much as he wants his disciples to understand who he is. And Peter answers, “The Christ of God.”

Now we can say the right words without actually getting the right answer. If someone asks me why a person’s eyes are green, I can say, “DNA”, but that doesn’t mean I really understand what that means. There is probably a lot that is wrong in my understanding of DNA, but I can say “DNA” and get the right answer. … My wife trained to be a “molecular biologist”. I can say the words, but I really don’t understand much about what her job was. I know pretty generally, but when she started taking in any kind of detail I was pretty lost. So when Peter says “the Christ of God”, does he really get what that means?

We probably shouldn’t be too hard on Peter. We can do the same thing. For us we say “Jesus is Lord”, but do we really get what “Lord” means? We say the right words on Sunday as we worship, but do we get what that means? Aren’t there bits you want to leave out? Jesus, you are lord of my after life, but don’t tell me what to do with my money. Jesus, you are Lord but don’t ask me to forgive that person. Jesus, you are Lord of my life, but don’t ask me to love that person I can’t stand to be around. Jesus, I’m happy to have you as Lord of Sunday morning, but don’t ask me to turn the other cheek on Monday. We are happy to have him be the Lord of love, but we want to take out the bit about him being judge. We say “Jesus is Lord”, but sometimes our definition of what “Lord” means might be different than the definition Jesus uses.

For Peter, and for other Jews of the time, the Christ (the Messiah) was a great military leader. He was going to be another King David. He would unite the country, kick out the occupying Roman army, and reform the corrupt Temple and governmental systems. God’s presence would be with the people in a distinct way and justice would come to the land. The wrongs would be made right.

We, who know the rest of Jesus’ story say, “ya, but…”. There are also pretty fundamental differences between the story we know (having read the rest of the Gospel) and the story Peter thought he was going to be a part of.

Right after Peter says “you are the Christ of God” Jesus knows the part of the story Peter is missing and so he starts talking about his death- “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” This would have rightly caused Peter’s jaw to drop. Actually in other gospels- Matthew and Mark- this is when Peter starts rebuking Jesus telling him he’s got this messiah thing wrong- The messiah isn’t supposed to die. And after Peter badgers him a bit trying to correct his understanding, Jesus finally has enough and has to put Peter in his place. Jesus turns to him and rebukes him saying, “get behind me, Satan!... You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things”. Interestingly, Luke doesn’t record that exchange between Peter and Jesus. The point of that exchange is that Jesus gets to define who he is, not Peter.

Right after talking about his own death, he starts talking about the cross disciples have to carry if they want to follow him. So not only is the messiah going to suffer and die, but so are his followers. This is not what Peter thought he was signing up for. This is not what they thought the messiah was about.

This is when we get into our Gospel reading. Jesus goes up a mountain with his closest disciples to pray. Mountains were a place of solitude to get away from the crowds, but they were also considered just a little closer to heaven. And while Jesus is praying, he changes. His face changes. His clothes are dazzling white. Whenever a heavenly being is described they talk about white garments and light.

Suddenly Moses and Elijah are with him. And what are they talking to him about? … They were talking to him about his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. … Here is this amazing sight. Moses, the one God used to give the Law to the people and who led them on an Exodus out of slavery to the Promised Land. And then there is Elijah, who is the prophet’s prophet. He was the prophet the other prophets wanted to be. Together they represent the “Law and the Prophets”- what we call the Old Testament. And what are these two men talking to Jesus about? His death. Or in the Greek, his “exodus”, which means “departure”, but with Moses standing right there we can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something else going on there. Is Jesus leading a new Exodus? Out of slavery to Sin and death to God’s kingdom?

Peter isn’t quite sure what to do, but it sounds like he’s hoping this moment will last and that Moses and Elijah will hang around, so he proposes to make some shelters. Sometimes we have these “mountaintop experiences”. Sometimes it is a worship service. Cursillo can be like that. Spiritual retreats can be like that. We feel God’s presence to be particularly powerful. Our faith feels stronger. All our doubts seem to drift away by God’s sheer reality. If you have had an experience like that you know how badly you want it to last. That’s probably what’s going through Peter’s mind. This is the kind of messiah stuff he was hoping for. Let’s hang out on the mountain and I can ask Moses all my questions about the law, and hear Elijah tell some stories, then we can all go march down to Jerusalem and take over. … That’s not what this was about though. The moment wasn’t going to last and they were speaking to Jesus about his death.

Then someone else shows up. A cloud envelops them. It brings to mind the pillar of cloud the Hebrews followed by day; and the cloud that enveloped Mt. Sinai when Moses received the Law; and the cloud that filled the Temple. And then they hear God’s voice, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" God’s voice doesn’t point to Himself, or Moses, or Elijah. God’s voice points to Jesus. And it tells the Disciples to listen to him. When Jesus says “Messiah” it includes suffering, rejection, and death, “listen to him”.

The mountaintop experience doesn’t last. Soon the cloud is gone and so are Moses and Elijah. We want it to last, but it doesn’t. God often gives us those experiences to get us ready for something. From the mountaintop glory Jesus goes down into the valley to face a demon that is torturing a boy. Jesus is again on his mission. He is right in the thick of the human mess. It is an image of the incarnation. God comes to us, leaving the glory of heaven to be one of us, wrapping himself in human flesh. He travels to the valley of suffering and sinful humanity- A world infested with evil. Jesus leaves the mountaintop and goes to the valley to encounter a demon and suffering humanity.

The mission Jesus was on was so much bigger than Peter’s mission for the messiah. Peter thought the messiah was just for the Jewish people and the land of Israel. But, Jesus was for all of humanity and the world. Peter wanted a military victory over the occupying forces of the Roman Army. But, Jesus wanted victory over the oppressive forces of Sin, death, and the demonic. Peter wanted to re-establish the kingdom of King David. Jesus wanted to establish the Kingdom of God. Peter’s vision was so much smaller than the vision of Jesus.

Sometimes we don’t get what God is up to. Peter didn’t get why suffering had to be part of the picture for Jesus to be the messiah. When we encounter difficulties we don’t get why life is this way. We don’t see the purpose. It doesn’t make sense in terms of the plan we have set out for God. Like Peter, our vision can be too small. Our version of God’s plan for us might be happiness in this life. God’s plan for us might be for our holiness and then our happiness for all eternity. Sometimes our vision is too small. Sometimes we have to trust Jesus to lead us, not knowing all the turns in the road. We often have to trust Jesus when we don’t understand what’s going on. One of my favorite quotes is by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “you have to live life forwards, but you can only understand it backwards”. Could it be that when we look back on our life from the point of view of eternity that all the points of sadness, disappointment, and pain suddenly seems to have a different kind of value? They seemed pointless and unnecessary, but when we see the big picture they have been transformed to bring about some greater good. Our vision is small. God’s vision is much bigger. In Isaiah 55:8-9 God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The transfiguration is ultimately about showing that what Jesus is about is in line with what God has been doing all along, right from Moses on up to Elijah and now with Jesus. Even though it might not seem to make sense all the time, and it might now always meet our expectations of how we think things should go. We might not always understand all the bends and turns in our life, but we can trust that God has things in control and has a bigger vision than we do. AMEN

Monday, 1 February 2016

all you need is Love... what is it? 1 Cor 13

At the University of Lethbridge I used to meet with a group of students and teach different methods of prayer. One week I met with them and I used 1 Corinthians 13 to help us enter into prayer. First, I asked them to read the chapter and understand what it was saying. We read it out loud then sat in silence as they re-read it privately to themselves- internalizing it. Then after a few minutes I asked them to replace the word “love” with their name in versus 4-7. So where it says, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” It then became, “[Chris] is patient; [Chris] is kind; [Chris] is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. [Chris] does not insist on [his] own way; [he] is not irritable or resentful; [he] does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. [he] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” We then sat in silence meditating on our lives as compared to 1 Corinthians 13. I asked them to notice where it felt comfortable, and where it felt uncomfortable, and then to talk to God about what they were feeling. It’s a humbling experience. No one comes away feeling like they don’t have areas of their life they need to work on.

One student rebelled against my directions. She said, “I can’t see myself that way, so I inserted Jesus’ name instead”. She had a point. This is a more profound kind of love than I can pull out of myself. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was preaching on this passage and said, “Who is this love- if it is not he who bore all things, believed all things, hoped all things- and indeed, had to endure all things, all the way to the cross? Who was never looking for his own gain, never became bitter, and never kept count of the evil done to him- and thus was overpowered by evil? Who even prayed for his enemies on the cross [Lk 23:34] and thereby totally overcame evil? Who is this love, which Paul was talking about, other than Jesus Christ himself? Who else could it be, if not he? What better symbol could there be, standing over this entire passage, than the cross?” (What Love Wants- London, Oct 21, 1934).

So the rebellious university student that refused to follow my directions had a point- little did she know she had Bonhoeffer to back her up. Yes, this is a profound kind of love. It is a love that we cannot come to on our own. It is a love that has to arise in us from somewhere outside us. It has to be inserted in us by Jesus.

Yes, this is the love of Jesus- or rather- Jesus himself. But, this doesn’t get us off the hook. This is a letter written to a real group of Christians. This was a group of Christians living in a real city called Corinth. It was a busy city and it was a recently rebuilt city. It had the feel of a boom town. There was lots of trade and lots of cultures mixing and mingling. Lots of competition. Lots of new ideas, and religions. It was also known as a place where the people were pretty relaxed with their sexual morals. In many ways, it’s a lot like the culture we’re living in. … The Corinthian church was dealing with some strong egos among some of their members. There was competition about who was more “spiritual”. Some who had gifts that were less obvious or considered less valuable were overlooked. Paul was writing to address some of these issues.

As much as my student friend and Bonhoeffer see the love of Jesus here, Paul was also writing this letter in the hopes that this kind of love would be seen in the Corinthian Christians. Paul wasn’t writing this so they could admire the love of Jesus from a distance, but so they could manifest this love in their church… because, by the Holy Spirit, Christ was in them. This love is what they need to correct their issues.

First, Paul starts by describing how important this love is. I might have the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues, and might seem very impressive to people around me, and might be considered a very “spiritual” person. But, if I don’t have love, then I’m just a noise-maker. I’m just making meaningless sound. I might have prophetic powers, revealing the will of God and the deepest mysteries of reality in a profound way, but if I don’t have love, I’m nothing. It’s pointless. If I have all kinds of trust in God, so that I never worry about the future and no obstacle seems too big, if I have that kind of faith, but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. It doesn’t mean anything. I could do amazing acts of charity. I could give everything I own away to the poor, but if I do it out of self-love to puff myself up and make myself feel like an important person in other people’s eyes, rather than out of love for God and my neighbour, then it’s for nothing. It’s pointless. I gain nothing. I could even offer my body. I could give my life protecting someone, or I could give up my life as a martyr for refusing to deny Christ, but if I do it for any reason but love, then it was for nothing. Paul is saying that the only thing that makes anything valuable in an eternal sense is love. … So how important is love? Paul says it is really the only think that is important. Every achievement that we think is important, if it isn’t at its root about love, then it is just dust in the wind. It will all end up in the grave.

What do we think is important and impressive? A prestigious position- I could become the prime minister. Or maybe some important academic- maybe I win a Nobel Prize for physics or medicine. Or maybe I’m the most beautiful, or maybe I’m famous and on TV. Maybe I start a charity and drill wells for thirsty people in third world countries. Paul says it’s all pointless without love. With love it is all worth something. And we could make the argument in reverse. I count do the most menial task- I could clean the toilet- and if love is present in that action, then it has eternal significance.

This isn’t any ordinary kind of love. We use that word in a lot of different ways. I love my wife. I love my children. I love pizza. I love hiking. I love books. Do I really mean the same thing when I use the word “love” in all those statements? Other languages have multiple words for love, and we use just the one. When Paul speaks about “love” he is speaking about what John was speaking about when he said that “God is Love” (1 Jn 4:8). Love incarnate is what Bonhoeffer was talking about when he called Christ that love. This is the love we meet on the cross. It is the love we see in Paul’s letter to the Philippians where it says Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7). It is a love that selflessly serves the beloved.

But what does this love look like in daily life? Next, Paul talks about what this love looks like on the ground. He wants us to be able to spot it. He wants us to yearn for it in ourselves. This love is outward facing. It is all about respect and concern for the other. He says love is patient. It doesn’t rush. It can wait a very very long time. It doesn’t force anyone before they are ready. Even when it seems pointless, love keeps on. Love is kind. Not in a passive sense, but in actively showing kindness.

Paul also tells us what love doesn’t look like. Love is not selfish the way envy is, or boasting is, or the way arrogance is, or the way rudeness is. All that is in some way about self-obsession- it is service to the self rather than the other. Insisting on your own way, irritability (overreacting, being easily offended), and resentment or bitterness… it’s self-obsession- it is serving the self rather than the other. Self- interest and self-centeredness is exactly the opposite of what Paul is aiming at. We can call something “love” that is really an attempt to control the other person for our own self-gratification. A lot of what we call love is really polluted by manipulation and control and does not reflect the character of Christ who “did not please himself” (Rom 15:3).

In verse 7 we see a list of “all things”- it bears the unbearable. It doesn’t look away from the pain, the sin, or the disaster. Bonhoeffer says, “love is still greater than the greatest guilt”. It believes all things. Doesn’t that mean we will be lied to by people, and be taken for fools? Out of love, yes, we will sometimes. We listen thinking the best of the person in front of us. It has been said that attentively listening to someone looks almost exactly like loving someone. Sometimes out of love we will believe the unbelievable. This doesn’t mean we believe lies about God, or we don’t worry about truth, but when we are listening to the person in front of us, we listen like they are telling the absolute truth. We listen in a way that our love for them is more important than evaluating the truth or falsity of what they are saying. One sociologist said that young men are looking for an unshockable friend. A friend they could tell anything and they wouldn’t abandon them. Love hopes all things and endures all things- it never gives up on anyone even if we look like fools. In the end, love is never wasted.

I know lists can be sort of difficult to listen to, but just remember the core of what he is saying. As we hold all these together all at once we see that the love he is really talking about expresses itself in respect and concern for the other. What we often mean by love is a warm positive feeling towards the other person. That’s not what Paul is talking about here. It is an active respect for the other person so we don’t speak or even think negatively about the other. It is an active concern for the other person to be well.

Like my rebellious university friend you might be saying to yourself, “but, I can’t love like this”. It’s too hard. It leaves me too vulnerable to being taken advantage of. You’re right. You can’t love like this. Only Christ in you can love like this. … He will teach us how to do this. Don’t start with trying to love the most evil person you can imagine. Start with loving a person that slightly annoys you- the neighbor with the noisy dog. Start small and Christ in you will build your capacity to love. This isn’t something we should put off as “sissy stuff” or “too hard”. If Paul is right, what we put love into is the only things that will have any eternal significance. According to Paul, from an eternal perspective, training ourselves to love is the most important thing we can do. Whatever we do in love lasts into eternity. Whatever we do without love ultimately means nothing. For Paul, a wasted life is a life with a lack of love.

It is only possible for us to love this way because he first loved us (1 Jn 4:19). When we see that God is love, and we see that God loved us so powerfully and profoundly- when we receive that love- then we can love truly. Or maybe it’s better to say, we can allow that love to flow through us. True love does not look into another person to find something lovable. True love flows through us from God into the world.

In everything we do, may we be motivated by that Love that first loved us. May you feel that Love course through your veins, until holding it back becomes painful. May the love that fills you pour out into the world and transform it because God is loving the world through you.

Follow @RevChrisRoth